MANILA – Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Sunday left for a visit to Israel and Jordan, pursuing a pivot away from his nation’s long-time reliance on American military hardware and support.
The four-day visit to Israel will be the first by a Philippine leader in more than 60 years of diplomatic ties between the two nations, even though the links between their people go back to Manila’s sheltering of Jews during the Holocaust.
Duterte’s visit has generated much attention, powered both by his penchant for foul-mouthed statements — including likening himself to Hitler — and his internationally condemned drug crackdown that has killed thousands.
Duterte, accompanied by an entourage including soldiers and police, will sit down with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and hold an event with some of the thousands of Filipino migrant workers in Israel.
“We assign great importance to this visit, which symbolizes the strong, warm ties between our two peoples,” Israel’s foreign ministry said in a statement.
Duterte has pivoted the Philippines away from its former colonial master the United States and towards warmer diplomatic and business ties with China and Russia.
The US and Canada have both seen military hardware deals fall apart with the Philippines due to concerns over Duterte’s drug war. But so far sales with Israel have gone smoothly.
“(The visit) is for President Duterte to look for an alternative market for… weapons for our armed forces as well as for the police,” Henelito Sevilla, an international relations expert at the University of the Philippines, told AFP.
Israel is among the world’s top arms dealers, with nearly 60% of its defence exports going to the Asia-Pacific region, according to Israeli defence ministry data.
The Philippines emerged as a significant new customer in 2017 for Israel, with sales of radar and anti-tank equipment worth $21 million.
Manila says the trip is expected to yield agreements on defence as well as labour, which is one of the Philippines’ top exports.
Some 10 million Filipinos work abroad and send home money that is a lifeline for the economy. Manila is keen to sign agreements on protections for the workers.
Although the Philippines has a special bond with Israelis for giving refuge to some 1,300 Jews fleeing the Holocaust, Duterte drew global condemnation for comparing himself to Hitler in 2016.
“Hitler massacred three million Jews. Now there are three million drug addicts (in the Philippines). I’d be happy to slaughter them,” he said. Most mainstream historians say six million Jews died in the Holocaust.
Duterte later apologised for his remarks, which he said were aimed at critics who had likened him to the Nazi leader.
Just over a year later the Philippines abstained from a UN vote rebuking the United States for moving its embassy to Jerusalem. Palestinians see the eastern part of the disputed city as the capital of their future state.
Duterte on Sunday expressed support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“We shall be guided by our constitution and laws as well as our international commitments in support of efforts and initiatives including the two-state solution,” he told reporters.
Netanyahu says he wants the Palestinians to govern themselves, but has recently declined to specify whether that would mean an independent Palestinian state or some diluted form of autonomy, which many right-wing Israelis advocate.
Duterte heads to Jordan on Sept 5, where he is expected to meet King Abdullah II.